The Presidential Years

But if too little privacy was irksome, loneliness was more difficult. The demands of public life rested uneasily with private life. Mandela often lamented – as did his family – that the struggle had deprived them of a normal family life. Release from prison brought some respite but negotiations and the election campaign were voracious in their demands on the political leadership. Entry into government brought new constraints and challenges.

The four years after release from prison had at least initially brought the joy of interaction with children, grandchildren and other relatives in Johannesburg, if in some cases constrained by the effects of long years of separation or absence, and circumscribed by the demanding schedule of that period.

After he and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had separated in 1992, he had moved to what become his home in Houghton for the next six years. His granddaughter, Rochelle Mtirara, who had been one of his visitors in prison, stayed there with him, giving him both personal and administrative support. Four of his grandchildren also stayed there.

But after going into government, South Africa’s separate legislative and administrative capitals took some of that away. It meant that the executive lived in Cape Town when Parliament was in session, and the sessions were now expanded because a whole new legislative framework had to be constructed to facilitate the country’s transformation. For Mandela that meant living a somewhat lonely life in the official residence, Genadendal, away from grandchildren and other relatives. His schedule became even more demanding, combining the needs of government and the ANC, domestic and international. ‘One gets used to it,’ he told a journalist, ‘but it destroys family life. ... I miss children, just being able to be with children at the end of the day and listen to their chatter.’779 He also complained after a while about the absence of time to think and read beyond official documents.

It became all the more testing as private difficulties were refracted in media rumours and speculation and then became public. Personal problems and emotions combined with political challenges and loyalties when he dismissed Winnie Mandela from the Cabinet in April 1995.

When, not long after that he initiated divorce proceedings, although he shared the pain during the court proceedings, he asked the media to keep a distance.

This is a very sensitive matter, highly personal. …You’ll understand that we have been together since 1958 and whatever is happening is something which causes deep trauma and I would therefore appreciate if you don’t interrogate me on the matter.780

And then weeks later, towards the end of 1995, Rochelle told him she needed to move from the house because she was finding it difficult to study while there. ‘She is a wonderful, caring child,’ he told the media, ‘but people are always calling her so that they can get to me and she has no life of her own.’781 He confided his feelings to a notebook.

As usual after 9 pm granddaughter Rochelle sits on my bed after giving me my eye treatment. I expect a few kind words from her before she kisses me ‘goodnight.’ Instead she drops a bomb. ‘Granddad,’ she says, ‘I must give you a report which will leave [you] completely devastated. It is not the type of thing you expect from me. ... As a result I will leave home immediately and settle elsewhere. You have always stressed the importance of education generally and specifically with regard to myself and the Thembu Royal House, whose performance in this regard has always been less than mediocre. You have given me full support in this regard. You will always be in my thoughts Grandpa. But I am leaving home to settle elsewhere.’ Although courteous throughout, she spoke fearlessly and clearly. I was stunned and could not believe it was my own grandchild who was tearing my heart apart. She has always been most meticulous in looking after me, taking off my shoes and socks before I retired to bed, telling me beautiful stories, enquiring what time I wanted my breakfast the following morning.782